On the Road to Vang Vieng

What does today have in store for us?  Well, we’ll be spending most of it on the minibus, travelling from Luang Prabang to Vang Vieng.  Vang Vieng used to be known as a real party town, overrun by hoardes of tourists tubing, drugging and drinking their way along Vang Vieng’s waterways.  There were the inevitable spate of deaths at which point the local government decided enough was enough and the party image of the town had to have a stop put to it.  What remains of this former party town is yet to be seen, a few hours away by bus yet.

So what is there to say about the Lao countryside, other than it’s stunning.  The journey is mostly quiet with the majority of the group napping or listening to podcasts.  I lean with my head against the window, camera at the ready for scenes of local life.  So here’s the journey in pictures…

Along the way, we make a couple of pitstops – one for snacks and a toilet break…

…and the other for lunch at a restaurant which is perched on the edge of a mountain.  It is so misty today you cannot see where the edge of the mountain leads to.  Most interesting about this pit stop is the toilets, which consist of very large open windows looking out to the world below.  Well, they would if there was no mist…

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Not far from Vang Vieng, we stop at the buddhist temple at Ban Pha Tang.  It’s a welcome stop, not only to stretch our legs but because of the scenery – beautiful bright temple buildings pop against the dark green of the lush background scenery because of the time of the day.  A little kitten scampers around the site here, small blessings of rice sit upon a bright red plate over there.  There’s a bell tower to climb and extravagantly carved buildings to photograph.  The town itself looks like it would be a beautiful place to stay.

We depart just as the local children are arriving home from school for the day.  Chatting and laughing away, shy of the attention from this group of travellers.  I love stops like this – this is what travelling is all about to me.

It’s fairly late in the day when we arrive at our hotel in Vang Vieng, so after a quick check in and freshen up, Sar guides us through the dusty streets and down to the Nam Song River to find some food just in time to watch the sun go down over the mountains.  It’s a perfect ending to what has been a day of visual treats.   There’s not much of a party vibe to the town right now, but I wonder if it’s different in the light of day?

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Local in Luang

This morning Sar is taking us to see the alms giving.  Several of us are concerned about this because we’ve heard it’s not really the thing to do and that preferably tourists should really remain out of the way of such ceremonies.  He assures us we are going somewhere quieter on the trail, however when our little buggy train pulls up outside the most popular bakery in town, we feel a little duped.  We have buckets of rice and snacks (which to most of us look like packets of no-goodness-at-all for those who are on a basic diet).  More tourists arrive and little stools are put out for them to be seated on.  What follows next, is unforgiveable to most of us in our group – these tourists REMAIN SEATED whilst the monks collect their alms from them.  This seems to be very wrong to us, very wrong in deed.  But Sar sees no problem in it.  He sees it as something which is a part of the local culture that they want visitors to see.  I personally feel embarrassed and wish that perhaps I had gone for a stroll myself this morning and seen the ceremony from a distance so I could have experienced it from a more local standpoint rather than this contrived feeling event.  I feel like such a tourist – and not in a good way.

The rest of the day I spend at my leisure.  I don’t want to sight-see.  I just want to chill and enjoy the town.  A local lunch, a trip down to the river front, a stroll around the streets, some local banana chips, hanging out in a bookshop and a shot of lao-lao (a very strong local Whiskey).  The rain still hangs around annoyingly.  I write a postcard home to my niece and breathe a huge sigh of relief as I receive an email stating I have a job starting the Monday after I return home from Asia.  Now, I just need to make sure my washing is dry for the next leg of our journey.

 

Tuk Tuk me to Kuang Si

The weather isn’t at its best for exploring today.  Light sprinkles of rain interrupt throughout the day and annoyingly the wet sand on the footpaths flicks up the back of my legs while walking.  These jeans will need a wash – and not the kind provided by rain.

Luang Prabang is a pretty little place.  Shady little streets are lined by boutique shops and restaurants – a lovely place to stroll around.  Sar is guiding us around town to show us the sites today.

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First stop is the local markets where all manner of fresh produce is on offer.

A glimpse of one of Luang Prabang’s local trades is on display up one of the small alleyways – a silversmiths workshop.  And what they created was just stunning.  It was so interesting to see just how much work went into making the gorgeous silver bowl.

The streets house all matter of interesting things to see…snake whiskey anyone?

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The Traditional Arts & Ethnology Centre (TAEC for short) is a great place to learn about the hill-tribe cultures of northern Laos.  Here, you can find beautifully embroidered clothing, learn all about the different tribes and at the end of your visit grab a traditionally hand-made Lao souvenir from the gift shop.  One of TAEC’s guides enthusiastically introduces himself and shows us around the exhibition.  TAEC also runs handicraft workshops.

As we go to leave TAEC, the rain comes down in buckets.  Sar rounds us up with a tuk tuk to ferry us to our next stop, Wat Manorom.  This Wat is possibly the oldest in Luang Prabang, at least there has always been a temple on this site.  We hide out here from the rain, while we learn a bit about the paintings which cover the wat walls.

A quick change of clothes back at the hotel and those who are heading to Kuang Si Falls pile into a tuk tuk for the ride.  The scenic ride takes around half an hour across single lane wooden bridges and around or sometimes through, muddy potholes.  When we arrive, small stalls and restaurants line the approach to the falls.

Entering the large wooden gate that bounds the falls, is like entering a jungle oasis.  A signboard map explains that we will see the rescued sun-bear sanctuary first and several bears are out playing or just hanging around when we get there.  The pathway to the falls area is very slippery thanks to the recent rains.  Thongs are definitely not a good idea and I just manage to avoid several slips.  It takes a careful half hour to get to the top lake which hosts a beautiful flowing waterfall.  Beneath these areas, aquamarine ponds of water cascade downwards, the water turned by the limestone basin of the waterway. Kuang Si Falls are simply stunning.

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On our way back to town, villages are going about life, busying themselves for dinner, grill smoke gently rising into the wet sky.

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Day 2 on the Mekong

About the only places open this morningare the bakeries lining the main road of Pakbeng.  Each counter is attended by small groups of tourists stocking up on breakfast and snacks for the next part of their journey down the Mekong.  The smell of breads and pastries mixes with the smell of meat roasting along the roadside.  Aside from the bakeries though, most of the activity is down at the dock where goods are being loaded onto long boats and baby chicks peck around in the dirt.

The morning is misty and cool.  I stand down at the dock, eating my breakfast, watching the going ons and noticing a couple of elephants on the opposite side of the river, swaying their trunks to and fro.

Our group all assembled and our bags re-loaded onto the boat, we board for day two on the Mekong.  It’s a subdued start to the day, watching the mist rise out of the valleys and over the mountains, little sprinkles of rain peppering the water.

Most of us are sitting writing in our diaries when a Mekong tidal wave interrupts us with a spray of water across the table and everything on it.  Thankfully the rain covers had been pulled down just moments earlier, but it didn’t stop everything from getting wet.

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A journey such as this could be called boring by some.  But it really is a chance to unwind and enjoy the simple things in life.  On both sides of the river, is pristine forest, mostly untouched by tourism or big business.  People just going about their daily lives – washing, fishing, playing – no technology in sight and I can’t help but think their lives are the happier for it.

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Gentle rain remains with us for the rest of the journey.

After a few hours we stop for a visit at the Pak Ou Caves where we glimpse what can only be described as a resting home for Buddhas of all descriptions.  Big, small, resin, wooden, gold-leafed – all of them reside here in the caves of Pak Ou.  There are two caves at Pak Ou.  One with around 4,000 buddhas, and the other – a mere few hundred steep stairs up from the lower cave – which is home to a less spectacular 2,000 buddhas.  You need a torch to make the best of the second cave, which I didn’t pack, but the stairs are a bit slippery because of the drizzle, so I stay stay and admire the lower cave – judging from the comments of the returning visitors, it’s the better of the two.  I stand at one of the terraces just up from the lower cave and admire the view of the village of Pak Ou across the Mekong, before re-boarding the boat to soak up our remaining time on the Mekong.

A further 40 minutes or so down the river, we say goodbye to our day home for the last couple of days and mount a bunch of steep (but dry) stairs for a 20 minute drive into the town of Luang Prabang.  Our hotel is a 20 minute walk from the centre of town, so we begin our time here with a short orientation walk where we discover the local night market is in full swing.

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